Learning to swim the Maldivian way
Maldives.net.mv – Seven Grade 3 children join hands in a circle in the shallow turquoise water of Soneva Fushi, Maldives. On the count of three they duck, submerging their faces into the warm water. Seconds later they jump up, squealing with contagious delight. With their instructors, they float on their backs and kick in the shallows, their giggles drowning out the sound of the waves.
So far, not so unusual. But for many of these island nation children, this is their first ever swimming lesson. Despite living on Eydhafushi, an island less than 1km long by half a kilometre wide and just one metre above sea level, most of these children are unable to swim. Unusually dark skies, intermittent rain and choppy water cannot dampen the excitement of the children as they receive their first proper instruction in the water.
Federica Siena, marine biologist at Soneva Fushi, is the lead of the two week learn-to-swim programme Her small stature belies a strength of focus, both in and out of the water. In a lilting Italian accent, she explains the motivation behind the programme:
“The idea came from the 2013 SLOW LIFE Symposium which is an annual environmental event hosted by Soneva. We had lots of conversations with marine experts and we thought that teaching kids seemed the most important way to inform the people around Soneva Fushi about protecting the ocean. It’s the first step in a bigger goal of environmental protection. Giving lectures and presentations wouldn’t work – the kids need to have a passion and start loving the sea.”
Filmmaker and six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council Jon Bowermaster, is making a documentary film of the swim programme, with the aim of promoting swimming worldwide. He asks the children where they go to swim. We don’t, they respond. Why not? It is dangerous. There are dangerous fish and it is dirty.
The dangerous fish is questionable. But without doubt the shoreline at Eydhafushi is dirty. The parents refuse to let their children take their swimming lessons there and with good reason. The contrast between the litter-strewn beaches of local islands and the clean white sand of resort islands like Soneva Fushi is impossible to ignore. In a nation with few municipal waste facilities and huge stress on the limited available land, the sea has traditionally been a useful dumping ground. But just one or two generations ago that waste would have been food waste and biodegradable matter. Today it is plastic bottles, plastic packaging and aluminium cans.
“I have travelled around the world studying the way people who live on the edge of the ocean react to it, treat it. Sadly there are many places where the ocean has been abused by people mistreating it for decades,” says Jon.
“The goal with our learn-to-swim programme is to teach kids, and parents, to swim, to gain a confidence that will keep them safe in the ocean, but also encourage them to be better protectors of the ocean. Once they’ve swum here, seen the sandy bottom and the fish, they’ll become stewards of taking care of it.”
Earlier in the day, 17 mothers of the same group of children join for their first lesson. The lesson begins with simple steps. They start with feeling comfortable with their faces in the water. They learn to exhale through the nose and inhale through the mouth, and progress to floating on their backs. The sound of their laughter competes with that of the children.
Lead instructor for the swim programme is Nathan Tschohl from Diversity in Aquatics, a non-profit committed to reducing annual drowning statistics and to increasing diversity in the profile of swimmers worldwide. A staggering 1.2m people drown worldwide each year, a figure Nathan is determined to see fall. He looks satisfied as he waves the mothers off at the end of class. “This was 100 times more than I was hoping for. There was no fear among these women. They will go home and tell their friends and family. This could be a really important stepping stone.”
Meanwhile, it is the turn of the children. Nine year old Iraahath is not so sure as the mothers. She arrives in tears, probably afraid of the water, possibly feeling shy, yet within minutes she has her face in the water and excitement conquers fear. “Vaagi dhookollaa!”, her instructor tells her – relax!
Drying off over sweet pastries, the exhilarated children share stories of their first swimming lesson. Nine year old Ida has a huge smile. The slogan on her bright green t-shirt screams Don’t Look At Me but it is hard not too. She confidently tells me that today she was very scared when she put her face in the water for the first time but that at the end of two weeks she will be snorkelling on the reef. “I will go into the deep. Because I will learn!”